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Ben Whishaw in Biopic of Russian Writer

Ben Whishaw in Biopic of Russian Writer

Reflecting the peculiarities and contradictions of the man who gives the film its title, Limonov: The Ballad is a strange, stilted, inventive, kaleidoscopic, challenging, imaginative and — above all, and perhaps entirely intentionally — irritating biopic of the Russian poet-punk-prisoner-gadfly-neo-Fascist Eduard Limonov (né Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko in 1948). To paraphrase the novelist Julian Barnes’ review of Emmanuel Carrere’s sort-of novel, sort-of biography on which this film is loosely based, Limonov: The Ballad is a work viewers may enjoy having seen more than they would enjoy seeing it.

It’s anybody’s guess how many will make the actual effort to watch this 158-minute ramshackle romp about a man who, before he died in 2020, applauded Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fought on the side of the invaders in Ukraine’s Donbas and Donetsk regions. Limonov’s unsavory sympathies would likely turn off most Western viewers, apart from the fearless fans of dramas about political monsters. (For that niche constituency, this would make a fine double bill with Aleksander Sokurov’s Hitler pic Moloch.)

Limonov: The Ballad

The Bottom Line

A bit of a lemon.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Masha Mashkova, Tomas Arana, Sandrine Bonnaire
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Ben Hopkins, Kirill Serebrennikov, adapted from the book ‘Limonov’ by Emmanuel Carrere

2 hours 18 minutes

You would think Russia would be Limonov’s natural market, given that the subject is known mostly in his motherland (and a bit in France, thanks to Carrere), which is also the homeland of the film’s director Kirill Serebrennikov (Tchaikovsky’s Wife). But this hasn’t a cherry popsicle’s chance in hell of being shown within fewer than 500 miles from Moscow for all manner of reasons — starting with the scenes in which its protagonist (played by Ben Whishaw speaking entirely in English with a theatrical “raa-shun” accent) has soft-core gay sex. Also, Serebrennikov spent three years under house arrest in Russia until just recently on probably trumped-up fraud charges, and has since emigrated to France. So that makes legit distribution back home unlikely.

Even the writer-director who originated the project, Academy Award-winner Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War), reportedly decided not to go ahead with directing it because he found he really didn’t like the main character, or at least not enough to make a film about him. Pawlikowski’s name remains on Limonov: The Ballad, giving him credit for the screenplay along with British writer-director Ben Hopkins (37 Uses for a Dead Sheep) and Serebrennikov and listing him as one of the executive producers. It’s a tempting thought experiment to wonder what Pawlikowski would have done with the material given the finesse with which he contracted the long time span of Cold War and his incisive knack for depicting the fractured psychology of Soviet-era expats, refuseniks and colluders in both that latter film and Ida.

Instead, we have a work that is very recognizably Serebrennikov’s, which is to say it’s nostalgic for the Soviet era, outlandishly celebratory of the callow charms of bohemian youth (compare with his pop-music-themed Leto), baggy to the point of undisciplined (see Petrov’s Flu) and full of long, fluid, roaming, handheld single takes (applicable to nearly all his works).

Those bravura long takes are deployed frequently, accompanied by impressive crowd choreography to show Limonov and friends literally moving through the years like rooms in a crowded building and nearby city streets — places teeming with knick-knacks and detritus that evoke specific years and historic milestones, such as a TV set showing footage of a state funeral or the Berlin Wall coming down. These connective sequences are indeed impressive and evoke Serebrennikov’s roots in avant-garde theatre, but do they need to be soundtracked to Lou Reed songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” quite so often?

Summarizing the plot of Limonov, and therefore the broad contours of its hero’s life, risks provoking incredulity and yet may also trigger drowsiness, but here goes. After a prologue showing a middle-aged Eddie having returned to Moscow from years in exile and explaining his new-found nationalism at a press conference, the film pretty much works through his biography chronologically. Skipping the childhood stuff, the story gets going with Eddie or Edik as a young factory worker and poet manqué in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in the 1960s after a rocky hoodlum phase which saw him getting sent by his parents to a mental hospital. (That stuff is covered in Alexander Veledinsky’s Russkoye, a 2004 Russian adaptation of Limonov’s early writings.)

A dalliance with fellow literati-set denizen Anna (Masha Mashkova) effectively ends when Eddie hooks up with a beauty supposedly “out of his league,” Elena (Viktoria Miroshnichenko). Eddie manages to woo her away from her previous boyfriend by cutting his wrists on her doorstep, which somehow is interpreted as a grand romantic gesture. The past sure is a different country.

After many scenes showing Eddie and Elena copulating in assorted positions, including a spot of anal while watching Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on TV, the happy couple end up emigrating to New York City, represented at first with a long-single-take tour around what looks like 42cd street when it was a hub for prostitution and porno theaters. But exile is hard on the two of them. Eddie doesn’t get the recognition for his genius that he thinks he deserves, and seethes with hatred for all the other Russian dissidents who have been embraced by the Western media — the aforementioned Solzhenitsyn, the poet Joseph Brodsky, physicist Andrei Sakharov and so on.

Elena runs off with a photographer whom she gladly allows to penetrate her “in all her holes,” as she tells Eddie before he tries to strangle her. Half out of curiosity and half out of self-abnegation, it would seem, he solicits an unhoused man (Alexander Prince Osei) to have sex with him, Limonov’s voiceover crowing throughout about how shocking it is to not only be screwed but by a Black man at that. Then he becomes a butler for a while to an uptown millionaire (Tomas Arana).

Serebrennikov and Co. are so taken with the sexy, sleazy 70s-ness of it all that it feels like ages until the facts take Eddie back to France at first and then to Moscow, where he eventually ends up starting his own weird nationalist, Soviet-nostalgic political party and then gets sent to prison. Some viewers, myself included, may feel this back half is the more interesting part of Limonov’s story, one that Carrere’s book covers in less detail. But just when it seems like the film has gotten better, it ends with the obligatory what-happened-next text explanations before the credits role.

At least there aren’t any rostrum photographs flashed up to reveal how much Whishaw looks like Limonov. Maybe because the resemblance is poor — although Whishaw makes an effort to put flesh on the bones of the script — it’s a bit of a chin-scratcher as to why he was cast. Sure, he’s quite a protean actor, and one who has played mentally disturbed and violent characters well (such as the protagonist of the disturbingly dark Surge), but even he can’t quite square the overlapping and concentric circles and right angles of Limonov’s story to make something that hangs together here.

At least his hair, practically a standalone performer in its own right, puts on a pyrotechnic display of thespian skill, contorting itself into all manner of tonsorial shapes as Limonov evolves from thug to hipster to skinhead superhero. Perhaps the Cannes jury might consider a special award for his hair on its own.

See Also

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Masha Mashkova, Tomas Arana, Sandrine Bonnaire, Corrado Invernizzi, Odin Lund Biron, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Ivan Ivashkin, Vladislav Tsenev, Alexander Prince Osei
Production companies: Wildside, Freemantle, Pathe, Chapter 2, Vision Distribution, Hype Studios, France 3 Cinema, Logical Content Ventures
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Ben Hopkins, Kirill Serebrennikov, adapted from the book ‘Limonov’ by Emmanuel Carrere
Producers: Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Gangarossa, Dimitri Rassam, Ilya Stewart
Executive producer: Pawel Pawlikowski, Elizaveta Chalenko, Igor Pronin, Svetlana Punte, Olivia Sleiter, Patrick Sutter, Yulia Zayceva
Co-producers: Ardavan Safaee, Nathalie Garcia, Manuel Tera
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov, Lyobov Korolkova
Production designer: Vlad Ogay
Costume designer: Tatyana Dolmatovskaya
Editor: Yuriy Karikh
Sound: Boris Voyt
Music: Massimo Pupillo
Animation: Timogey Gostev, Ekaterina Rubleva
Casting: Jina Jay, Anna Shalashova, Kika Stepanova
Sales: Vision Distribution

2 hours 18 minutes

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